The Transgender Experience in California

The state likes to see itself as a sanctuary. But its past—and present—doesn’t always support that ideal.

jules gill peterson, an associate professor of history at johns hopkins university, has written a book about trans history
Melissa Golden

Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, has written a book about trans history.

Last June, to celebrate Pride Month, a public library in the East Bay’s San Lorenzo hosted a drag story hour for families with young kids. Five men, including one wearing a shirt that displayed a rifle and the words “Kill Your Local Pedophile,” stormed the room to disrupt the event.

In a national climate in which right-wing violence continues to spike and school shootings have become horrifyingly commonplace, drag performer Panda Dulce feared the worst. The intruders screamed transphobic slurs and sexualized accusations, scaring children. The sheriff’s department was called, and its deputies removed the men from the premises. They identified themselves as members of the white supremacist group the Proud Boys.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

What transpired that day was one of at least 141 reported anti-drag attacks across the country in 2022, 6 of which took place in California. Although the Bay Area enjoys a reputation of being especially welcoming to LGBTQ people, the five men who targeted the drag story hour were all locals.

Measuring violence is not a straightforward task, but anti-trans attacks like this have escalated dramatically in recent years by every available metric. Hundreds of bills have been introduced in state legislatures to codify explicit anti-trans discrimination in education, organized sports, and restroom access. Other legislation has taken aim at coverage for gender-affirming healthcare, either restricting the coverage or banning it entirely.

Meanwhile, anti-LGBTQ violence has continued to rise in frequency and scope, going beyond street-level targeting of trans individuals to include threats to children’s hospitals in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, a white supremacist militia’s foiled attempt to disrupt Pride celebrations in Idaho, and the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado.

In January of this year, California enacted Senate Bill 107. The law shields trans youth and their families from prosecution for seeking gender-affirming care after moving to California from a state, like Alabama or Arkansas, that has made it illegal to seek such care. Like many state bans on abortions, these laws can explicitly prohibit crossing state lines for help.

Despite the new California law, the targeting of children at San Lorenzo’s drag story hour reminds us that anti-trans attackers have not spared California. As the state invites trans youth and their families to consider California a safe haven, putting these developments in their larger context reveals a bigger story: underneath the public spectacle of violent incidents are structural factors whose wear and tear are endemic. The barriers trans people have faced for decades in accessing the labor market, education, and housing have conditioned their vulnerability to police and interpersonal violence, particularly for working-class trans people and trans people of color. A polarized national political environment can make California seem like the antithesis of states drafting anti-trans legislation and policy, but the trans story of California is one in which safety and danger have never been mutually exclusive.

louise lawrence was arrested in the 1940s under a san francisco law criminalizing “cross dressing”
Louise Lawrence was arrested in the 1940s under a San Francisco law criminalizing “cross-dressing.”
© 2017, Kinsey Institute, Indiana University

Trans history’s enduring connection to violence began centuries ago as Spanish settler colonialism pushed north from Baja California. The rich constellation of Indigenous social and spiritual systems that today carry the pan-Indigenous name Two-Spirit were explicit targets during the Spanish colonial period. The Catholic mission system took it upon itself to police and punish people whose lives transgressed the narrow Christian definition of separate men’s and women’s roles. Attempting to erase Two-Spirit people through assimilation and social death was a pivotal alibi for colonial California’s theft of land and political sovereignty, shaping everything that would come in its wake.

When California became a state in 1850, its two largest cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, were already home to what are now among the oldest continuous trans communities in the country. Documented evidence of trans people living in proximity to one another or seeking out specific neighborhoods in which to live and work stretches back to the gold rush era. Western cities then had a reputation for being a little looser with morality, tolerating vice economies of saloons and sex work that catered to the unattached men whose labor migrations drew them to the “frontier.” Many trans women found a viable way of life in that service economy, having few other practical options at a time when women were expected to marry or survive on low-wage piecework.

That vibrancy and public spirit of permissiveness persisted after the gold mines were tapped out. Remarkably, some of the neighborhoods associated with trans community today, like the Tenderloin or North Beach in San Francisco, were, after the Civil War, dotted with nightlife venues where a star attraction was “female impersonation,” a job that afforded trans women a legitimate route to public recognition as women.

Trans men often sought out small-town life, where they’d be more likely to find acceptance within the rhythms of a community if they adopted a traditionally masculine line of work and married a woman. However, the anonymity of city life and its strength in numbers remained draws for working-class trans people and trans people of color. By the mid-20th century in Los Angeles, Hollywood and Downtown had become notorious vice neighborhoods where one could meet drag queens, trans women, and sex workers.

These early gay and trans neighborhoods also reflected urban segregation enforced by police fiat. West Hollywood’s history as a queer and trans enclave has much to do with the minutiae of policing; its speakeasies and vice bars flourished in the Prohibition era precisely because they were outside LAPD jurisdiction. The Sunset Strip became a destination for LGBTQ people interested in the work opportunities—and community—of the nightlife world.

Still, California was hardly a sanctuary for trans people; state-sanctioned violence ran hand in hand with resistance. The story of the U.S. LGBTQ movement usually begins with the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. But trans people living during the period before Stonewall were not nearly as isolated, hidden, or closeted as we might assume, and that was especially true in California. In the early 1940s, a trans woman named Louise Lawrence decided to transition on her own. Eager to meet more people like herself, she became a node in the Bay Area trans community. Despite living in a city with other trans people, though, Lawrence found everyday life dangerous.

Only a few months into going out in public as Louise, she was picked up by a police officer as she returned from the grocery store. Lawrence was white and middle-class and had the support of doctors whose authority helped get her out of that arrest. For trans people without those advantages, especially if they lived in Black or Spanish-speaking neighborhoods with a heavy-handed police presence, the mundane act of walking down the street or running errands carried an even higher risk.

Why could the police so easily arrest Lawrence? Because in 1863, San Francisco had become the first city in the United States to criminalize “cross-dressing” in public. Many other states and municipalities adopted similar laws in the decades that followed. Policing gender worked in concert with racial segregation to tightly regulate movement through urban space.

cooper donuts in downtown los angeles was a hangout for members of the trans community in the 1950s
Cooper Do-nuts in downtown Los Angeles was a hangout for members of the trans community in the 1950s.

A militant streak developed in the 1960s in response to this kind of police harassment. The best-documented organized, street-level LGBTQ resistance before Stonewall took place in California and was led by trans people. In 1959, the Cooper Do-nuts Riot in Los Angeles saw drag queens and trans women fight police by hurling doughnuts, coffee, and paper plates.

As the historian Susan Stryker has detailed, the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco was a forceful demonstration of the poorest trans people’s power. When trans women who regularly hung out late at night in the cafeteria were harassed by management, they refused to leave, and the police were called. As the story goes, one of the women threw her cup of coffee in a police officer’s face, sparking a brawl that became a melee in the streets.

Even after cross-dressing laws were repealed, the persistent criminalization of everyday life remained a structuring constraint for many working-class trans people and trans people of color. The pretext has shifted from cross-dressing laws to the policing of sex work and campaigns against unhoused people.

A key strategy for trans people in protecting themselves from public danger has been remaining unknown by the public. Occasionally, a trans person might become famous, or would make local papers if they were “found out,” often after they had died or had been arrested. But until recently, most Californians probably shared their communities with trans people without realizing it.

What has changed in the past decade is the hypervisibility that has put trans people center stage in the public imagination. That spotlight, in turn, has provided far-right politicians and violent extremists with a pretext to try to push trans people out of public life—to cast them away where they’re neither seen nor heard.

frameline a scene from the documentary "screaming queens—the riot at compton’s cafeteria, "which tells the story of a 1966 demonstration in support of trans rights
A scene from the documentary “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria,” which tells the story of a 1966 demonstration in support of trans rights.

In my book, Histories of the Transgender Child, I tell the stories of trans youth who managed, despite staggering barriers, to socially and medically transition as far back as the mid-1960s. Theirs were by no means easy childhoods. Georgina was a trans teenage girl whose parents brought her to UCLA’s gender clinic in the mid-1960s when she made it clear that she wanted to live as a girl and medically transition. While her psychiatrist there, Lawrence Newman, felt that it was pointless to try to stop adults from being trans, he hoped there might be a legitimate window to try to extinguish transness in childhood through conversion therapy. He subjected Georgina to a course of psychiatric intervention that was punitive and surely traumatizing. Surviving those attempts to punish and police her gender was taken as proof that she was “deserving” of transition, and Newman reluctantly signed off on her request for hormones when she was 15. Georgina’s parents coordinated with a new school to enroll her as a girl, and she legally changed her name. When she reached adulthood, she was finally able to access gender-affirming surgery.

For trans teenagers in the 1960s, the path to transition was a narrow and perilous one. Most were never able to do what Georgina did.

In today’s California, that path is less arduous than it was six decades ago; in a growing number of other states, it’s now much worse. While the everyday danger created by the policing of public space has remained consistent over time, today’s rising tide of anti-trans violence adds an explicitly political layer: it is violence seeking political outcomes.

Those outcomes include the Christian authoritarian state imagined by some evangelical politicians and the white supremacist motives of the Proud Boys. Each feeds back into the everyday struggles trans people already face, painting targets on their backs. The political rhetoric built on the idea of trans women playing sports or youth transitioning has given cause to the notion that it’s imperative to scrutinize the world for trans people, to seek them out, isolate and target them, or even push them out of public life altogether.

It’s hard to argue with the feeling many trans people share that they are less safe today than they were several years ago—even in California, even with the passing of SB 107.

Still, contextualizing these latest political attacks inside a structural history of violence and danger helps us better appreciate the stakes. Until the enduring problems of accessing education, housing, the labor market, and the resources needed to transition are addressed—until our shared public world, including the streets we walk down, is built for the trans women, sex workers, and trans people of color who have made homes together for centuries—safety will remain a superficial horizon.•

Jules Gill-Peterson is the author of Histories of the Transgender Child (2018) and an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Premium